Celtics

Celtics

Jayson Tatum was in his basketball bag, giving LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers all they could handle. 

He was scoring in an efficient manner (24 points on 9-for-17 shooting), rebounding the ball (seven rebounds) and making big shots.

And he was doing this on one of the biggest stages of them all: Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals.

A 3-pointer by Tatum put the Celtics ahead 72-71 with six minutes to play, a shot that capped off a Tatum surge in which he had scored seven of Boston’s last nine points. 

And then … nothing. 

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He took only one shot after that and missed it, going scoreless for the rest of the game.

The Celtics that year were a team that leaned on whoever had the hot hand. 

But on this particular night, they needed help figuring out who that was in the closing minutes — and in hindsight, head coach Brad Stevens should have stepped in and done more to implore his team to get the ball to Tatum in a better position to score. 

However Stevens stuck to what had worked so well for so long with this group: letting this young band of ballers figure out on their own who to lean on when it mattered most, as contributions seemed to come from a new player on a nightly basis.

But on this stage with all that was at stake, they absolutely needed Stevens to implore them to go to Tatum … a lot. 

 

And now, two years later, the domino effect of that game’s outcome is still felt. 

Brad Stevens has been at the helm for seven years here in Boston and ranks among the franchise’s winningest coaches ever. 

But in that Game 7 in 2018, the Celtics were less than six minutes away from getting to the NBA Finals, which is as close as this franchise has come to winning a title during Stevens' reign. 

When you look at the overall body of work since Stevens arrived in Boston in 2013, there are very few instances in which a decision or non-decision on his part stands out in a bad way. 

But this was one of those times. 

Yes, the Celtics were playing without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, who were both sidelined with injuries. 

And yes, there are undeniable benefits in having so many young players step their game up despite being without a pair of All-Stars in Irving and Hayward. 

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But as we’ve seen here in Boston and throughout the NBA, getting to the NBA Finals is not guaranteed for any team regardless of how much promise they show going forward.

And to be as close as they were at that time, there’s no way to completely move on from that sting of missing out — other than to take that next step and actually reach the Finals. 

You can go through all the missed shots and free throws and blown assignments defensively and find factors that led to Boston coming up short in that game.

But none looms larger than the Celtics' inability to put Tatum in a better position to score the ball in the final minutes. 

While the pain from that loss has in many ways helped Boston’s young core grow, the gains for the Celtics and the Tatum-Brown tandem would have been even greater had that group as they were constructed advanced to the Finals. 

When it comes to players making plays when it counts, of course it’s ultimately on them to deliver. 

But efforts must be made to best position players to come through in the clutch, the one thing in hindsight the Celtics could have done a better job in what was — and still is — the toughest loss for this franchise in the Stevens era.